Preservatives in food: benzoates, sorbates, and sulphites

Benzoates, sorbates, and sulphites are preservatives. They may be added to food to extend its shelf life. Learn more about these chemicals and how their use is controlled.

Why preservatives are used in food

Preservatives are used to slow down how quickly food may age and spoil. You may hear them referred to as chemicals that "extend the shelf life" of food.

They work by preventing or slowing down the growth of microorganisms, like mould or bacteria. Microorganisms can spoil food and make it unsafe to eat or drink. You might get food poisoning from spoiled food.

Foods that may contain sulphites

  • Hamburger patties.
  • Soft drinks and cordials.
  • Sausages.
  • Dried apricots.
  • Wine.

Foods that may contain sorbates

  • Fruit juice.
  • Margarine.
  • Baked goods like cakes, muffins, pikelets, and crumpets.

Benzoates are used in soft drinks.

Are preservatives safe?

Most New Zealanders are consuming preservatives within safe limits. Preservatives are unlikely to be a health risk even when consumed in large amounts.

Total diet study of sulphites, benzoates, and sorbates (2005) – Food Standards Australia and NZ

Allergy or asthma reactions to sulphites

Sulphites may cause asthma-like symptoms in those who have asthma or chronic allergic conditions. In rare cases, people may react to sorbates and benzoates.

If you have an allergy to these chemicals, check product labels to reduce your risk.

Find out more about food allergies

How preservatives are regulated

The use of preservatives is regulated. Preservatives can be added only to specified foods. They can't exceed the maximum permitted level (MPL) given in the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code.

MPLs and regulating the use of food additives

Science and research on preservatives

The safety of food additives like preservatives is calculated using a measure called the "acceptable daily intake" or ADI. ADIs tell you how much of a specific food additive you can safely eat each day, throughout your life.

ADIs for preservatives are set with a large safety margin. Even if you exceed the ADI, the health risks are low.

Acceptable daily intakes and other reference health standards

Reports and studies on preservatives

Food Standards Australia New Zealand sulphites survey

Who to contact

If you have questions about preservatives, email info@mpi.govt.nz

Last reviewed: